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The Bad Plus

Fox Hollow Estate, Lenox, MA
August 12, 2006

by J Hunter

Count Basie said, “It's the notes you don't hear that matter.” With The Bad Plus and Screaming Headless Torsos, it's the notes you hear, can't quite identify, but still knock you out!

The Bad Plus chose the Berkshires as the place to warm up for their Sunday main stage gig at the Newport Jazz Festival. (Sorry, Mr. Wein. Corporate sponsorship aside, it'll always be “Newport” to me.) I use “warm up” in the figurative sense: Take the comfortably cool temperatures we've had these past few evenings, subtract ten degrees or so, and you have the environment TBP faced as they mounted the small portable stage that had the Stockbridge Bowl as a backdrop.

The uninitiated might have thought the band was attempting a Stravinsky concerto as keyboardist Ethan Iverson led bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King through the opening number, “Mint”. As with most of the set, TBP mixed intricate time changes and crashing minor chords like a Broadway bartender building one complicated cocktail after another. For every original construction like “Fifth Floor Jewelry” or “Rhinoceros Is My Profession”, there was heavy deconstruction, as with their thunderous assault on the theme from Chariots of Fire, as well as their whimsical take on Burt Bacharach's “This Guy's In Love With You” and the awesome formation flying on Ornette Coleman's “Song X”.

It's easy to see why The Bad Plus horrifies traditionalists. Not only are they (supposedly) thumbing their noses at the mainstream, they're using the beloved piano-trio format to do it. That outlook ignores the creativity of their compositions and the musicianship that consistently generates such shock and awe - not to mention a few standing ovations. Iverson's seemingly impregnable solos are all based on simple, legitimate ideas that would be deemed acceptable had they come from Thelonious Monk. Anderson may look like a teenage slacker, and King may resemble a shaved version of Animal - the crazed drummer for the Muppet house band Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem - but their imaginative solos and steady foundation work are some of the best in the genre.

Despite TBP's headliner status, it made sense for Screaming Headless Torsos to come on last. The temperature was in the low 40s by then, so moving (or dancing) rapidly was key to survival. More to the point, The Bad Plus may look like Black Sabbath to the purists, but Dave Fiuczynski's raucous outfit makes TBP look like the MJQ. Brandishing a double-neck guitar right out of The Song Remains The Same, Fuze and his partners went off like a rocket, yanking the audience to their feet with a heavyweight mix of funk, blues, jazz, Hip Hop, and stuff that can only be called “Torso Music”.

Before the show, Fiuczynski told me he prefers “Rock Jazz - jazz that rocks.” The Torsos were all about that - on swirling originals like “No Survivors” and “Fuel Farm”, on complex instrumentals from the Fuze side project KiF, and on a Reggaeton rendition of “Blue In Green” that was light-years from Cassandra Wilson's whisper-soft treatment of the Miles Davis classic. While each Torso played a valuable role, Fuze's main foils were vocalist Freedom Bremner and percussionist Daniel Sadnowick. Bremner mixed rap and scat with a singing style reminiscent of Living Colour's Corey Glover; Sadnowick used horns, bells, whistles, and - when “appropriate” - children's toys to offer unique counterpoint to Fiuczynski's next-level solos.

Back when he was with Jack Walrath & the Masters of Suspense, Fiuczynski's guitar work was the X Factor. Fuze's talent has grown exponentially since then, thanks to a seeking musical nature that has drawn a variety of influences into the mix, from Indian sitar to microtonal scales that take notes further than you'd ever think possible. It's a new musical language in many ways, but unlike the recent work of Vernon Reid and James “Blood” Ulmer - both of whom are out there where the buses don't run - Fiuczynski's musical visions are accessible (and exciting) to the average listener.

People are encouraged to think for themselves, but are vilified when they don't run with the pack. The Bad Plus and Screaming Headless Torsos not only think for themselves, but their music is just as rooted in jazz history as anything else; it just happens to be that part of history that gave us Mingus Ah Uhm and On The Corner. That not only deserves applause - it demands it.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.